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Women in construction

Changing the gender agenda

It's a man's world; the rough, tough construction site is no place for a woman; it is just too aggressive and physically demanding. Civil engineering is not a career that a woman would want. Or is it?

Enter Ove Arup engineer Jo da Silva sporting a funky pink puffa jacket and club-wear. 'Concrete and steel - I'm mad for it,' she says in the latest campaign to encourage schoolgirls to consider science and engineering careers. She features in a Department of Trade & Industry advertising campaign which also uses an airline pilot and an electrical and mechanical technician from Thames Water.

Da Silva is not new to the role model business. She has spent much of her career over the last decade publicly proclaiming her love of being an engineer through the Engineering Council-backed Women into Science and Engineering initiative. She is successful - currently project manager and leader of Arup's structures team on the 15M National Portrait Galley extension, as well as being articulate and passionate about everything she does.

She needs to be. There is still a high level of prejudice against women in the industry, especially on site, although such views are increasingly in the minority.

Even though attitudes are better in the more civilised off-site office environment, women are still conspicuous by their absence.

Women in the industry often find the equal opportunities cause a hard one to promote.

Da Silva speaks for many when she says: 'I find it very difficult to speak at forums specifically about women in construction because I feel it's not the issue any more.' She is extremely wary about the value of positive discrimination towards women.

The real issue, she says, is why engineering is an unpopular career choice. 'If you ask an educated adult what a civil engineer does, the chances are they will not really know,' she adds. 'If it has done anything, WISE has helped to make teachers aware of engineering as a career and started to overturn the view that engineering is boring.'

However, what is certain is that women are being discouraged. Just 4.2% of the Institution of Civil Engineers' membership are women. Admittedly this is better than five years ago when the figure stood at just 3.5%. The WISE campaign can probably claim responsibility for some of this increase. But it can not really claim to have turned the tide.

When compared to other once male dominated professions like law or accountancy, civil engineering is still way behind - as is just about every other science based career. Research published this week by the DTI shows just 15% of full-time science based jobs are carried out by women.

So why is this? The DTI believes that the problem lies with the perception of science and science-based careers among school girls. It asked 14-15 year old girls, both those planning to take A-levels and those intending to leave school after their GCSEs, about their attitudes to engineering and science. The DTI research found that:

Girls feel alienated by the impersonal abstract content of science teaching. They value personal creativity, debate and topics with social relevance.

The typical perception of a scientist was a middle aged man in a white coat. Very few of the girls had ever met a female engineer.

Girls want to work in a socially supportive environment and not be isolated from their friends.

The more academic, confident girls want fun, challenging careers. They are motivated by achievement and success. They relate to role models in graduate careers and images of things like night clubbing and travel.

Girls planning to leave school at 16 have very low aspirations and levels of confidence. Job security and being surrounded by friends are most important.

What the DTI found was that schoolgirls are unaware that these aspirations could be accommodated by a career in science and engineering. The result is the new campaign to woo them into engineering, launched by Trade & Industry Secretary Peter Mandelson on Tuesday.

'Images of young women in casual trendy clothes with successful personal lives, who just happen to be scientist,' is the idea.

The message is that engineers and scientists are friendly, even trendy, successful, creative and not necessarily hyper intelligent. Careers are exciting, offer travel, job security and teamwork.

Gone are the hard hats and white coats normally associated with science and engineering. The poster campaign about to hit schools will demonstrate that women working in science careers are no different from the other professional career women. They are young and successful; they do enjoy themselves; and they do not dress like female Patrick Moores.

Da Silva agreed to take part in the DTI campaign because she felt the message could just as easily be picked up by boys.

The product of an all girls school, da Silva says she was guided into science and then civil engineering by her teachers' enthusiasm. She believes the DTI campaign will foster such enthusiasm and show girls, boys, teachers and parents that civil engineering can be a rewarding career.

'My father objected to me becoming a civil engineer, not because I was a woman but simply because he thought it was a bad career,' she explains. Reversing this kind of misconception is the priority, she believes.

Da Silva says there are two key issues that need to be resolved. First the industry needs to identify what stops women from wanting to be civil engineers. Then it needs to decide what are the problems for women in engineering. Too often the two issues are confused, she says.

Few girls, she explains, are put off civil engineering because they feel it is a male dominated industry. Most have never met a civil engineer or simply do not know what the job involves. 'The way it has been sold in the past is wrong. If people knew what engineering really is, then attitudes would change.'

At her insistence, the DTI poster shows da Silva at work on site in London, and working for Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief in Rwanda. It also shows her poring over drawings and letters in an office meeting. The image in the office, she says, is very important.

'Civil engineering has a special problem (compared to other science based careers) as it is permanently linked with construction sites. But it is a very small part of my job and you could be a civil engineer and never go on to a site.'

The DTI campaign is clever, she adds. 'It reinforces the feedback that I have already got from schoolgirls I speak to. When you are 14 you are trying to work out what to do in life. They want to see that there are other girls like them.' They need, she says, to see that it is a career that they could do and be successful at - a message that often applies equally to boys.

For da Silva, life for a woman in the modern civil engineering consultancy is no harder than in any other profession. Having said that, working for Ove Arup gives a slightly distorted view of reality. The firm has an unusually high proportion of female engineers, accounting for around 40% of its annual graduate intake.

'I can't say the glass ceiling does not exist, but it is being pushed upward all the time,' she says. 'I've landed in a company where it isn't really a problem, but Arup is probably at the better end of the spectrum.'

Elsewhere, particularly on sites, she accepts that some women do have a battle. Often problems are niggling rather than major.

'Modern sites have been cleaned up. You do not walk into a site office and find the walls plastered with pictures of naked women but there's still often nowhere to go to the loo,' da Silva explains.

'And there are never site boots that fit. I take size four and a half and they don't make them,' she says. 'Site jackets and other clothes in small sizes are often forgotten. It is difficult to get authority on a site in a jacket four sizes too big.'

Beyond these obvious difficulties, however, da Silva is adamant that the majority of problems faced by women in construction are down to personalities. 'Women and men are basically different but it is not a big deal,' she says. 'It's a character thing, you have just got to learn to get on with people.'

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